Seafood is confusing. Have you ever wondered about the difference between steelhead and trout? Chinook and king salmon? Black cod and sablefish? The list goes on, but these pairs of fish are the same species and legally they can be sold in Canada under either name.
Frequently, seafood is renamed to sound more appealing and marketable. Have you ever heard of goosefish, slimehead and Patagonian toothfish? These former names of monkfish, orange roughy and Chilean seabass were unpopular, but after their rebrand, sales skyrocketed to the extent that these species are now notorious for being historically overfished.
And that brings us to seafood mislabeling. Recently there has been much news coverage on this issue. Customers are outraged and rightly so – people want to know what they are eating and they should get what they pay for. The truth of the matter is that while seafood substitution sometimes happens where one species is swapped for another (e.g. escolar for tuna), most mislabeling occurs due to obscure rules around the legally acceptable name for a fish.
In a recent Canadian report on seafood mislabeling, 1% of seafood sold was found to be a substitution and 7% was an error in labeling. One could assume that vendors are purposely duping consumers, but businesses take pride in their good reputation and customer trust. They are highly incentivized to be truthful. It is also deceptively easy to make genuine mislabeling mistakes when it comes to seafood.
In Canada, the highest proportion of mislabeling comes from rockfish. There are 102 species of rockfish in the world and 36 are from in British Columbia. Although multiple species are caught together as part of a mixed fishery and sold as a group under the label “rockfish”, only some of these rockfish can also be labeled as “Pacific snapper.” Therefore, when a supermarket receives an order of rockfish, their order is actually multiple species of rockfish which are difficult to tell apart from one another, especially if they have already been processed into fillets. If they label these fillets as Pacific snapper, they could unknowingly be mislabeling those species which must only be called rockfish, and not Pacific snapper.
It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when the two names are commonly used interchangeably both verbally and at restaurants. As possible solutions, fisheries and/or suppliers could identify and separate British Columbia’s 36 rockfish species before sale, but this would be time-consuming, costly and it’s not legally required. Supermarkets could also simply label rockfish as “rockfish” instead of Pacific snapper and thus avoid the whole mislabeling risk. However, one Ocean Wise retail partner did just that, and sales slumped by 30%, thus giving credibility to the effectiveness of seafood rebranding.
Typically, people are biased to favour words such as “bass”, “cod” and “snapper,” which are associated with high-value fish. In fact, British Columbia’s Pacific snapper is not related to true snappers, which originate from the Gulf of Mexico and are not even sold outside the United States. The rockfish example is just one of many mislabeling complications.
So what can you do to cut through the confusion? If you love seafood, the best thing you can do is to learn the common names of popular items. Know your fish! Ocean Wise seafood partners are required to label sustainable items with the Ocean Wise symbol and encouraged to provide as many details as possible on labels including a fish’s scientific name. (There are multiple common names but only one scientific name per fish species.) Location of catch, method of catch, and details about whether the animal is wild or farmed is also important to list. These details can help you make decisions about the seafood you are purchasing, and if you don’t see them, ask your vendor so they see the demand for more fishy information.
Written by Ocean Wise Seafood Account Representative Claire Li.